Last night at the gym they were out of large size towels. Sitting there in the sauna with a wash cloth on my lap I overheard two young black women talking. Between mumbles and whispers I could make out a few words here and there.
“Why would he want to go back there? I would never go back to Detroit.”
“And the house he bought is right next to an abandoned house.”
“He’s crazy. Why can’t he just let it go?”
As they continued talking I overheard them mentioning they grew up on a block close to where I live now. I butted in and we exchanged tales of robberies on front porches, beautiful houses, family ties and dark street corners. After they left the sauna that line kept ringing in my head. “Why can’t he just let it go?”
I’ve met a lot of people, some of my own family members included, who were happy to walk away from Detroit. To put it simply, these people have seen some shit. It can be really demoralizing to live somewhere and continuously have the same experiences. Some one’s dead on your lawn, dead on your street corner, hooked on crack or junk, all the businesses are closed, there’s no jobs nearby and the busses aren’t reliable, no one cares that your street lights aren’t on or that foreclosed unkempt properties are falling apart all around your house, inviting fires, gas leaks, squatters and scrappers. I’m happy for every set of tired eyes, every heavy heart that makes it out of this situation to find a place to live their life the way they want to. I’ve also met a lot of undeterred folks who see past some of these issues as local issues to the systematic problems they are, whose determination tears down empty houses, chases out drug dealers, builds farms, opens businesses and feeds their neighbors. Some do it for political or social justice, and some do it out of pride for their roots. They fight tirelessly for their blocks and communities with a healthy balance of hope and grit, they cultivate magic. Both of these reactions to the daily traumas and trials of surviving are healthy and ok, and people should seek ways to live their life that provide them with the most safety and fulfillment that they desire.
A few years ago I was waiting for the bus at Woodward and Alexandrine. It was cold and an older black gentleman and I struck up conversation. He pointed at the empty looming apartment building across the street and said “I had my first daughter there.” He started telling me about life in his eastside neighborhood before the rebellions of the ’60s. How his blocks were filled with diversity and a rainbow of children all played together and everyone’s lawn was mowed and everyone had a job. He was a young teenager when the riots hit. He and h
is friends didn’t know what was going on but when they saw everything going crazy they wanted to join in on the fun, so they helped themselves to some beer from the liquor store. When his daddy caught them, “Oh no,” he said, “uh oh….” and he laughed trailing off. He said after the riots all the white people moved out and his neighborhood was half empty. I asked him what he thought about all the young white people that were moving into Detroit now, a few generations removed from those bad memories, they are unafraid and excited. “Good,” he said, “we need neighbors.”
The past few days, a craigslist post from Portland, OR has been floating around the internet. It’s hilarious, enraging, idealistic and uninformed, it’s naïve, it’s a lot of things, and it’s been removed from craigslist. Jalopnik’s Aaron Foley did a great article in response, below is the text shared of this now removed ad.
I’m in the process of rounding up a good group of fellow Michigan-Trail-ers for the long trek to the promised land. Detroit.
The plan is to round up a good group, (no number in mind yet), buy a property, or two or three, fix em up, farm everything to Eden, and give back to the community (ourselves included). Gentrification not included.
What you will need: Your brain. Your body. And most importantly, your Heart. It kinda keeps everything going.
You will not need to provide anything monetarily towards this project except for your own food and basic sleeping comfort.
The sky is not the limit. There is no limit. This is your chance to be a part of something great, something amazing, and something with the potential to be a complete failure. If you’re not ok with taking risks, putting yourself out there, and living in the most violent large city in the country, take some time to reevaluate your participation in this project.
Detroit will be Portland without large-scale gentrification. It will be revitalization that includes the people who are currently living there, the people worst affected by the arbitrary machinations of a system and way of life that does not care enough for people’s well-being. It’s time to take back our world for the people. It’s time. And the place is Detroit.
I’m not going to repeat everything Aaron Foley had to say about this, but I recommend giving it a read as it contains both great advice on surviving in Detroit as well as how to not sound ignorant. I too, however, have a few words to the Manus (the letter was signed Manu) of the world, as well as the critics of the Manus and anyone else who might care to listen.
So idealist traveler, as Mr. Foley suggested, you may find survival here a little more difficult than imagined. In addition to street smarts, winter layers, and a car or a good understanding of our barely functioning public transit system, there are some other things you are going to need here. You are probably going to need to make some friends. You are going to need to make an effort to understand and respect the history of this city and the current issues at play here. I would suggest finding some local groups to get involved in when you arrive so that you may learn first-hand from others the ways of life here.
It may also be helpful to acquaint yourself with some true facts about Detroit. Like for instance, though we do have high levels of crime and many dangerous neighborhoods, contrary to popular belief we are in fact NOT the most violent city in the country. Sorry, that award goes to our cousin Flint, MI, though we do come in at number two. Another fact that you may have missed: large scale gentrification is already in the works here as hot spot neighborhoods hike property taxes and big name investors swoop up buildings and blocks, pushing out longstanding businesses, organizations and residents while changing the entire dynamic of these areas. It’s made painfully clear when tax dollars go towards the corporate opening of high end grocers and sports arenas, while resources for those in need remain scarce. I have some words of advice for you, hopeful settler, or anyone else to whom gentrification and injustice is a concern to. First, you need to understand the privilege afforded to you by your race, gender, class, lifestyle, and orientation. You are going to have to do some research on what that means, as well as how privilege has affected things in this world, and in this city in particular. You are going to need to work hard to befriend people outside of your privilege, both people with less and more. You are going to have to be open minded and compassionate towards them, and you are going to have to be willing to be wrong sometimes, as well as willing to fight when you know you are right. I implore you to work outside of your comfort zones to build solidarity across the board, and to call out injustice when you see it. Check others on their privilege, call out racism, sexism, classism, able-ism, phobias based on orientation and gender identity. Challenge the oppressive view points of the world. Think critically, listen to other people, attend meetings and rallies. I’m not going to instruct you in detail on this, as there is ample information out there already to help you to understand these concepts.
The sentiment that seems to leave a bad taste in most mouths, the part where you invited yourself to be the subject of discussion and attention, would have to be the moment where you said “Detroit will be Portland.” You see, dear Manu, the people of this city are a very prideful lot. Perhaps you aren’t familiar with our motto? Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus; In English: “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes”. Our fine phoenix city has had its share of ups and downs, as far back as a fire leveling the city in 1805, with many subsequent fires, both literal and metaphorical, leaving us to rise back up and build our better days. Detroit has never had a need or desire to be anything but itself, and like the phoenix I believe we have the power and passion to make each incarnation more beautiful than the last and uniquely our own. We have a rich and torrid history that must be understood and respected. (And if that statement sounds redundant, I’m sorry but I cannot stress it enough). However, and this opinion might be unpopular, I’m going to take this a little further. Portland is no more Portland, than Detroit is Detroit, arbitrary lines on maps marking cities and states divvying up land for use by humans as we see fit. The truth is there is no blank slate in this world where every corner is teeming with life. Before it was Detroit it was the land of the Algonquian, and before that it was where the dinosaurs roamed. The earth, down to the soil, mycelium and microbes is a living organism that we can choose to live symbiotically with or dominate and destroy. There is nowhere you can step that isn’t going to impact something living, and nowhere that other footsteps (human or otherwise) have not been before. There is no empty canvas for you to move your dreams onto; anywhere you live and breathe you are going to impact the life around you and the life that is to follow.
I find it rather endearing to hear Detroit called “The promised land.” The “Paris of the West”, the home of Motown, the hope of good jobs on assembly lines and cars for everyone, the underground railroad’s last stop before freedom in Canada, civil rights, at many times Detroit has been a promise land for one dream or another. And as a barefoot child of the Rainbow tribe living on a block with farmers, activists, and anarchists, I understand that one of the promise lands here is one of social and food justice. We are a long standing urban garden capital with programs that started as early as 1893.
So to the idealistic settlers, I personally welcome you to Detroit, after all we need neighbors. Real human neighbors with good intentions and respect for our roots instead of properties being bought up by corporate interests. We need neighbors that work together, that care about community, and that are concerned about justice for all. We need neighbors who will show up at the polls and at community work days, who will pay their taxes and fight in solidarity with their communities. We need neighbors to buy homes of those who want out, to fill the homes of those who had to go, and to fight against the unjust foreclosure attempts to come. Neighbors who will resist gentrification that only serves a privileged ruling class. Of course you might need a slight attitude adjustment and a little education before you arrive. If you can’t hack it, if you aren’t genuine, well, our city of fire has a way of christening you in its flames, and once you have been reduced to ashes you will know if this is where you really belong (and want to be) or not.
(Writer’s note: You may have noticed I use racial descriptors such as black and white, here and elsewhere in my blog. I do this because, especially here in Detroit, it would be ignorant to pretend that someone’s presentation did not play a role in their experiences or the way they are perceived. Thank you to Aaron Foley for responding quickly to my request to copy the ad from his article, and for responding with honest emotion to what feels like never ending and sometimes arrogant desires to utilize Detroit as a ‘blank canvas.’)